A love story spanning the ages

Star-crossed lovers: David Sturzaker as Abelard and Jo Herbert as Heloise

Eternal Love

Globe Theatre on Tour-English Touring Theatre

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

*****

THE story of Abelard and Heloise is one of the great romances of history, he, the greatest thinker of his age, she, the intelligent, headstrong niece of the Canon of the great cathedral of Notre Dame in the heart of Paris at the dawn of the 12th century.

Perhaps had Shakespeare turned his star-crossed lovers into a series and given the pair the Romeo and Juliet treatment they may have been better known, but as it is their love affair has barely troubled popular culture although Diana Rigg found both fame and no little amount of exposure, should we say, both here and on Broadway when she appeared naked in Ronald Millar’s  1970 play Abelard and Heloise.

Most of what we know comes from their letters and long love letters to each other which put the flesh upon the bare bones of their story, letters which even made it into an early episode of The Sopranos and which Cole Porter worked into the verse of Just one of Those Things linking the world’s greatest love stories with:

 

As Abelard said to Heloise,

"Don't forget to drop a line to me, please,"

As Juliet cried in her Romeo's ear,

"Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear?"

 

Shakespeare may have given the pair a miss, but it was the replica Elizabethan theatre where he had found fame that gave our lovers their latest moment on the stage in 2006.

The Globe is to be commended in finding contemporary works which slip easily into the Shakespearean genre of Elizabethan theatre and Howard Brenton’s play, called In Extremis when it first appeared, dispenses with sex for ticket sales sake, not that it is ignored mind you, and instead examines not just their fated love affair but the political intrigue and theological clashes with the established Church in France, with Abelard’s Aristotle-influenced views of man being at odds with the strictly literal interpretation of the Bible and God of the powerful clergy.

It sounds dull and dry, the stuff of shuffling in seats and glancing at watches, but this English Touring Theatre production, the Globe on tour, is vibrant, alive and fun from beginning to end, apart from rather grisly scene which stifles the laughs for a while.

Julius D'Silva as Louis VI, friend and champion of Abelard who finally had to bow to Bernard's doctrine

David Sturzaker gives us lively, confident Abelard who we first encounter as a student at Notre Dame. Students in  1100 though were not expected to question their teachers, much less challenge and then defeat their arguments. Abelard had the intellect and, perhaps also the arrogancee to do so though, making a powerful enemy of his teacher,  the master, William of Champeaux, played with indignant pomposity by Tim Frances, he also antagonised two of William’s ambitious students, Alberic, who was to become a Bishop, and Lotolf, who was to own half the inns in Paris, played John Cummins and William Mannering, who are used in much the same way as Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, plotters who unwittingly introduce comic interludes.

Abelard’s main opponent though, as he teaches enlightenment, is Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who is a solid gold, fundamentalist, out and out religious nutter. A man who lives a life of starvation and deprivation, living on dry bread and prayer, who has disciples who hammer nails through their hands to serve Christ, that is when they are not starving to death.

Sam Crane plays him with an alarming modesty and sickening humility along with unflinching belief making him all the more dangerous. Crane incidentally deserves the highest of praise, or perhaps fastest of committals, for not just once, but twice licking the sole of the foot and toes of a fellow actor in Lotholf.

Jo Herbert gives us an independent Heloise who is well-read and independently minded, educated and intelligent, attributes which must have been a major appeal for Abelard, along with the obvious physical attraction – it seems lust was less of a no no at Abelard’s end of theological thinking, although it was interesting to see that, despite fathering a child by Heloise, Abelard could still be an abbot, bishop, even go all the way to Pope . . . if he did not marry, or, if no one knew he was married.

Giggling nuns find excitement and fascination at discovering Abelard and Heloise's somewhat unorthodox devotions on the altar

Heloise’s uncle, Canon Fulbert looked upon Abelard as a son, a star pupil who had became a famous teacher and a celebrity throughout Paris and beyond.

Heloise in turn had become Abelard’s star pupil and then, fatefully, his lover and they seemed to be at it anywhere and everywhere, which made discovery inevitable.

Edward Peel as Fulbert gives us an avuncular canon and his feeling of betrayal by both his niece and Abelard is palpable. It is not the shame or scandal that has hit home to him the hardest, but what he sees as disloyalty by those he loved and cherished.

The clash leads to the only violent scene where Abelard is attacked by a gang led by Fulbert’s cousins and castrated, mercifully, for the audience if not Abelard, the act taking place behind a crowd of attackers – although is still brings shudders to the male members of the audience . . . in both senses.

Thus the greatest lovers of the age end up separated and celibate, nun and monk with Denise, Abelard’s sister, played by Rhiannon Oliver, who had brought up, Astrolabe, the son of the now separated lovers, joining her secret sister-in-law in holy orders.

Abelard was to have one more clash with Bernard, a public debate, but the wily Abbot, now the most powerful Churchman in France, the maker of Popes, had stitched up the result. Bernard might have won that particular episode but in reality he and his fundamentalism had lost. He was destined to become merely a footnote in a love story which is still going strong 900 years later.

A word too about the three musicians perched in a cubbyhole high above the stage, composer and musical director William Lyons, Rebecca Austen-Brown and Arngeir Hauksson, playing their Antiques Roadshow collection of long forgotten instruments, which included Duduk, Vielle, Psaltery, Lute and Gittern, giving a splendid period feel.

Bernard, left, played by Sam Crane, with some of the drunken church hierarchy he has recruited to his cause. courtesy of Lotholf's inn,for  the final battle of wills 

The saddest thing about the play was the small numbers in the audience. This is theatre of the highest order from wonderful acting to close attention to detail in directing by John Dove, all beautifully lit by Paul Russell. It was lighting that did much to enhance the performance, even incorporating house lights, yet was probably hardly noticed. Michael Taylor's design was simple and much the same as the set for the excellent Ann Boleyn which toured two years ago.

That was another Brenton play, directed by Dove and with Herbert as Anne and Sturzaker as Henry – the couple then taking their onstage romance into current real life.

This truly is quality theatre and should be a must for any theatrical student or anyone with aspirations or roles directing or acting in amateur productions, if only to see what can be achieved, mounting a major production with a minimal set.

It is alive, engaging and has arguments and situations just as relevant now as they were in 1100, all told though glorious acting with not a weak link in the cast, which should be enough to excite anyone interested in theatre.

We might be falling down world rankings in pretty well everything else but we are still up there when it comes to theatre, and it is performances like this that are the reason why.  It deserves full houses and queues for returns. To 01-03-14.

Roger Clarke

 

The play also runs at Malvern Theatres March 25-29.

And in a monastery garden . . .

****

TWO shows telling stories of very different types of love have brought a contrasting reaction from the theatre-going public in the Black Country.

Last week the rather crude 51 Shades of Maggie packed them in at the Grand, but now a quality production by the English Touring Theatre seems to be getting the cold shoulder.

At one point on the night I attended the smattering of people in the stalls were surprised to find several members of the cast leaving the stage as Howard Brenton’s medieval drama opened. Perhaps they thought the actors were making a point about the lack of support when they sat down and chatted briefly to the customers.

But they quickly returned to begin the story of religious fervour and forbidden love in 12th century France which, despite one scene of breathtaking cruelty, contains plenty of humour and pleasant music played by three musicians perched on a balcony above the stage, playing instruments of the time which perfectly suited the tale.

First performed in 2006 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the story focuses on an ill-fated love affair between controversial philosophy teacher Abelard and his attractive young pupil, Heloise, beautifully played by David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert, who happen to be partners in real life.

It’s bite-your-lip time when a brutal castration takes place on stage, merficully hidden from the audience by the group of men surrounding their victim, and at one point a nun uses the F-word !

A fine performance, too, from Sam Crane, playing Abelard’s bitter rival Bernard of Clairvaux.

Directed by John Dove, Eternal Love runs to Saturday night (Mar 1).

Paul Marston 

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